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Which little boy could resist such a story? A young prince, in disguise, was fleeing over range after range of the highest mountains in the world, away from his gold-roofed palace in the shadow of the snowcaps, towards the freedom of the plains. Soldiers from an invading army were in fierce pursuit. Every night, as my parents and I turned on the wireless in the last days before television – March 1959 – a scratchy broadcast would crackle out from the BBC announcer saying that now the young ruler (a monk, to boot) was a little closer to a new life, and now his pursuers were closing in on him. Watchfires of the invading troops could be seen nearby and planes (friendly or malign?) were sometimes spotted overhead.

The minute the 14th Dalai Lama arrived safely in India, his first words to the 13-year-old brother who accompanied him were, astonishingly: “Now we are free”. At that moment, my father, then teaching philosophy at Oxford, realised that a great treasure, a repository of centuries of long-secluded wisdom, was available to the outside world as never before. My father sailed to India and requested an audience with the 24-year-old Dalai Lama, at a time when few people were knocking on his door – indeed, few people even knew who – or what – a Dalai Lama was then. Always ready to oblige, the leader of the Tibetans invited my father to visit him in his new home in the Indian Himalayas, and the two philosophers enjoyed a long conversation on Buddhism, on how to bring a larger view and a long-term vision to realpolitik, on the subject of my father’s research on (and the Dalai Lama’s mounting fascination with) Gandhi and his work to lead a non-violent opposition to an occupying power.

At the end of their conversation, my father, like any proud parent, confessed he had a three-year-old son back in Oxford who had taken a keen interest in the story of the Dalai Lama’s flight. With his characteristic gift for the right gesture, the Tibetan leader found a photo of himself when just five years old, already sitting on the Lion Throne in Lhasa, and sent it to me through my father. Though I couldn’t in my infancy understand exactly who this figure was, I put the picture in a frame and, whenever I felt burdened, or thought life could be hard on a small boy alone in a foreign country, I looked at this five-year-old, already leader of 6m people, and things fell into perspective.

The picture accompanied me to California when my family moved there four years later, and stayed on my desk for 30 years in all. Then one day a forest fire struck up in the dry Californian hills around our house and within minutes it was all around our home, flames 70ft high, whipped on by 70mph winds, reducing everything we knew and owned to ash. Images are not permanent, I began to understand, as the photo left my life for good. But what they stand for, ideally, may endure.

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Tony Bilello
August 1st, 2008
6:08 AM
What a great article to read just before bedtime on a cool quiet evening at the base of the Colorado Rockies.

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